2008 - %3, April

It's a Boondoggle: the Gas Tax Holiday

| Wed Apr. 30, 2008 12:19 PM EDT

Everybody who knows anything about energy policy and/or tax policy is calling the gas tax holiday a cynical political pander by Senators McCain and Clinton. Here's the usually Clinton-friendly Paul Krugman:

John McCain has a really bad idea on gasoline, Hillary Clinton is emulating him (but with a twist that makes her plan pointless rather than evil), and Barack Obama, to his credit, says no.
Why doesn't cutting the gas tax this summer make sense? It's Econ 101 tax incidence theory: if the supply of a good is more or less unresponsive to the price, the price to consumers will always rise until the quantity demanded falls to match the quantity supplied. Cut taxes, and all that happens is that the pretax price rises by the same amount. The McCain gas tax plan is a giveaway to oil companies, disguised as a gift to consumers.

Here's economist Dean Baker:

...almost all economists would agree that the tax cut proposed by Senators Clinton and McCain would save consumers nothing. With the supply of gas largely fixed by the capacity of the oil industry (they claim to be running their refineries at full capacity), the price will not change in response to the elimination of the tax. The only difference will be that money that used to go to the government in tax revenues will instead go to the oil industry as higher profits.

Tom Friedman:

[The idea] is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer's travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

Here are the Washington Post, Robert Reich, and the Los Angeles Times. Here are Grist and Vanity Fair. Here's Newsweek, maybe the best of the bunch.

At worst, the gax tax holiday pads the pockets of the oil industry (McCain's version). At best, it accomplishes nothing at all (Clinton's version). So why propose it? Because voters are struggling with gas prices and by suggesting we chop 18 cents off the price of every gallon, a candidate sounds like a populist champion. But it's nonsense and a pander and the candidates know it.

Hillary Clinton has TV ads up in Indiana and North Carolina that attack Barack Obama for saying no to the idea. Awesome.

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Carbon Offsets For Tummy Tucks?

| Wed Apr. 30, 2008 11:45 AM EDT

Plastic surgery has long posed serious risks for many of its vain victims: death from infection, bursting boobs, migrating silicone and the like. But who knew it was also bad for the environment? The Washington City Paper reports that disposing of all the fat sucked out of people during liposuction and tummy tucks puts 1,000 tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year, largely because the fat (which is 78 percent carbon) is incinerated.

Since belly fat as biodiesel is a tough sell, a local upscale plastic surgery practice is now buying carbon offsets to cover disposing of its nips and tucks. The surgeons tell CP that while jogging would be a healthier alternative for shedding all that fat, it wouldn't make much difference on the environment because the exercise would still "liberate" carbon into the atmosphere. I find this claim somewhat dubious (especially given the self-interest of the source), but since I'm too science challenged to work this out on my own, I'll put this to you, dear readers: Are joggers really the human versions of farting cows, huffing out more carbon that fat incinerators?

Frank Black Takes on The Golem

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 9:55 PM EDT

golem-160x248.jpgThe San Francisco International Film Festival this weekend presented a screening of The Golem with live original music by Frank Black, and it reminded me of two things: Frank Black is a dynamic, talented rock musician, and The Golem is a wickedly odd piece of cinema.

The Golem is a 1920 German silent film based on a legend about a clay figure brought to life by Jews living in the late 16th Century Prague ghetto. Yup, CLAY. Similar to Frankenstein, the figure is larger and more powerful than the average human. But instead of a square, flat head, the Golem sports a Dutch boy helmet/haircut (mud-cut?!). He initially protects, and then turns on, everyone in the ghetto and then dies. I had watched scenes of The Golem years ago in a film class, but had forgotten how strange this film really is. The film seems to celebrate the triumph of Jews over adversity, but also caricatures them all as worrisome old men with long, shaggy beards and silly, elf-like hats. The most fascinating part of the film is Hans Poelzig's set design. His stylized ghetto feels like a dark, dingy version of Dr. Seuss drawings.

Frank Black, whose shrill, nasal vocals never completely wow-ed me when he was fronting the Pixies in the 90s, led the pit band like a true storyteller. Songs ebbed and flowed with the movie's weird plot, and lyrics seemed to convey key elements of sadness, fear, joy, and love in the story. Black has said that he wrote all the music in a day, and is considering releasing his Golem music as a Black Francis (his pseudonym) record. Black's music helped ground the film and made it more enjoyable, although not enough to keep one of my friends from leaving early and others in our group from dozing off.

Considering that Black's music was written for a movie about a monster, it felt incredibly safe and tasteful. A more relentless, risky, and scary approach would have really made the night—and the Golem—sing.

Ex-Gitmo Prosecutor Lays Politicization Bare

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 5:29 PM EDT

morris-davis.jpg Air Force Col. Morris Davis, who used to be the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay and a defender of the Bush Administration's military tribunal system, took the stand Monday on behalf of a man alleged to be Osama bin Laden's former driver in order to disseminate the truth about Guantanamo.

Davis was cross-examined by the Army officer who replaced him after his resignation last October, Col. Lawrence Morris, in one of the most dramatic challenges to the first American war-crimes tribunals since World War II...
Davis said he resigned hours after he was put in a chain of command beneath Defense Department General Counsel William Haynes, one of several officials who had encouraged the use of evidence even if it was gathered through waterboarding... "The guy who said waterboarding is A-OK I was not going to take orders from. I quit," Davis said.

More after the jump...

Obama: Wright is "Wrong" and His Statements Contradict "My Public Life"

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 4:05 PM EDT

It had to have been a tough moment for Barack Obama—the lowest moment of his campaign. At a press conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Tuesday afternoon, he denounced and rejected his one-time pastor.

After Reverend Jeremiah Wright's four-day media-fest—during which he spoke positively about Louis Farrakhan, equated attacks on himself as attacks on the black church, claimed that the brains of blacks and whites operate differently, mocked white people, and defiantly, if not arrogantly, defended the over-the-top comments that sparked the Wright controversy—Obama had to do something. With an expression of pain and sadness on his face, Obama said he had been "shocked" and "surprised" by Wright's performance Monday at the National Press Club. "I don't think anyone could attribute" Wright's ideas "to me," he remarked, noting that Wright was "wrong" and his recent statements "appalling." He insisted that Wright's remarks contradict "how I was raised," "my public life," "what I said in my book," "my 2004 convention speech," and "everything I've said on the campaign trail."

Referring to his speech last month on race—which was prompted by the first Wright eruption—Obama said that he had tried to "provide a context... and make something positive out of" the Wright affair. Regarding Wright's National Press Club appearance, Obama said it was "a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth. I can't construct something positive out of that." Wright, he observed, had "caricatured himself."

Clinton Stuns With $2.3B in 2009 Earmark Requests

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 2:43 PM EDT

Playing the game...

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has requested nearly $2.3 billion in federal earmarks for 2009, almost three times the largest amount received by a single senator this year.
The Democratic presidential candidate's staggering request comes at a time when Congress remains engaged in a heated debate over spending federal dollars on parochial projects.
It also has gained traction on the campaign trail. Presumptive GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), a longtime foe of earmarks, has called for eliminating what he dubs "wasteful Washington spending." Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has spurned earmarks, seeking no funds for pet projects in the upcoming fiscal year.

Particularly odd because in March, when anti-earmark sentiment was gaining traction, Clinton co-sponsored an amendment that would have banned earmarks for one year.

I've said all I'm going to say on this topic already. Find that here.

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Another Prominent Republican Screwing With the Democrats

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 1:28 PM EDT

bill_kristol.jpg Yesterday, Karl Rove was shamelessly contradicting himself in order to create confusion in the Democratic presidential race. Today, it's Bill Kristol.

Kristol in today's Times:

Furthermore, if you add up the votes in all the primaries and caucuses — excluding Michigan (where only Hillary was on the ballot), and imputing the likely actual totals in the four caucus states, where only percentages were reported — Clinton now trails in overall votes by only about 300,000, or about 1 percent of the total. By the end of the nominating contest, she may well be ahead on this benchmark — one not entirely to be scorned in a democracy.

Kristol during the 2000 presidential recount saga:

As a matter of constitutional law, the nationwide popular vote is an entirely irrelevant consideration here. No man has ever campaigned for the nationwide popular vote, and no man has ever been elected president because he's won it. Like it or not, the Electoral College is everything. Intimating otherwise, and in the same breath circulating fictions about polling-place irregularities, the Gore camp has done its best to ensure that should George W. Bush eventually be elected president, some faint whiff of illegitimacy will hang over his administration. It will be unfair and corrosive.

When the Times hired Kristol I called him intellectually dishonest (among other things) and that's certainly evidenced here. The man will say anything that suits his purposes, and I think that is grounds for ignoring him completely. And don't say, "Well, the first way to ignore him would be to not blog about his self-serving contradictions." The real first way to ignore him would be to not give him a column in the most prominent newspaper in America.

Freedom's Watch Attacks Nancy Pelosi -- for High Gas Prices?

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 12:31 PM EDT

Granted, what is politically effective may be intellectually insulting, as a conservative think tank hand put it to me. But this new ad by conservative advocacy group Freedom's Watch charging that House speaker Nancy Pelosi has done nothing to reduce high gas prices prompted a few blinking beats of cognitive dissonance. (President Bush also blamed Congressional Democrats for high gas prices and the faltering economy at a press conference today).

This is the hawkish group whose associates seek it to serve as the political infrastructure not only for getting Republicans elected, but also to rally public support for the sacrifice required for the "long war" that Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Freedom's Watch's board members advocate? Long war and cheap gas just don't seem to go together. The former says: this is hard but necessary. The latter says: it's easy and don't think too hard about it.

This is politics and one is hardly surprised by disingenuousness from any quarter. But of all the ways disingenuous or sincere Freedom's Watch could try to motivate the conservative base, one is struck that it picked this one. Because presumably, if Freedom's Watch gets its way and McCain is elected, there will be another US president inclined to apply military solutions to the Middle East -- a goal reportedly sought by chief Freedom's Watch backer Sheldon Adelson in the case of Iran. And gas prices are only going to go up.

The ad seems another sign that Freedom's Watch under its new executive vice president Carl Forti, a former top National Republican Congressional Committee operative, is increasingly focusing on the calculus of trying to get GOP candidates elected in local House races - no surprise given his NRCC experience. But it raises the question of whether the group intends to focus less on rallying support for the national security arguments fundamental to the presidential race. Likely only for now, until a single Democratic presidential candidate emerges on whom to focus its future attacks.

Update: Here's one Republican Congressional candidate presumably unlikely to get Freedom's Watch's support.

McCain's 100 Years Comment: Not a One-Time Gaffe

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 12:01 PM EDT

Part of the Republican pushback on McCain's 100 years comment are claims that McCain simply misspoke or is being taken out of context. That's ludicrous. Here's video of the moment — he takes the time to elaborate on why he thinks a 100-year long occupation is acceptable. He was given an opportunity to walk his comment back by our David Corn immediately after this event; instead, he said he is okay with troops in Iraq for "a thousand years" or "a million years."

And he has said some version of this over and over; the instance above is just the most famous example. Here are some others:

McCain Was Against 100-Year Occupation Before He Was For It

| Tue Apr. 29, 2008 11:41 AM EDT

mccain_closeup_250x200.jpg I don't know what to make of this exactly, but John McCain had a sane position on the Iraq War before he got all Alexander the Great on us and came out in favor of a 100 year occupation of the Middle East.

Here's McCain on MSNBC in January 2005:

"I would hope that we could bring them all home," he said on MSNBC. "I would hope that we would probably leave some military advisers, as we have in other countries, to help them with their training and equipment and that kind of stuff."
Host Chris Matthews pressed McCain on the issue. "You've heard the ideological argument to keep U.S. forces in the Middle East. I've heard it from the hawks. They say, keep United States military presence in the Middle East, like we have with the 7th Fleet in Asia. We have the German...the South Korean component. Do you think we could get along without it?"
McCain held fast, rejecting the very policy he urges today. "I not only think we could get along without it, but I think one of our big problems has been the fact that many Iraqis resent American military presence," he responded. "And I don't pretend to know exactly Iraqi public opinion. But as soon as we can reduce our visibility as much as possible, the better I think it is going to be."

And here he is repeating his opposition to a long-term occupation in November 2007 (video):